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October 15, 2013 7:43 pm
The political romance between two of Europe’s best-known rightwing leaders blossomed at a Paris restaurant in April. Geert Wilders, the head of the Netherlands’ anti-immigration Party of Freedom, had for some time been courting Marine Le Pen, who has reinvigorated the cranky French neo-fascist National Front party she inherited from her father two years ago.
At Ms Le Pen’s suggestion, they met at the regal La Grande Cascade in the Bois de Boulogne for a lunch that lasted nearly two hours. The main course was a discussion about whether two nationalist politicians could put aside their domestic obsessions to focus on a common enemy: European integration.
Since then, the two have made hopeful statements about campaigning together, suggesting their first date was a success.
“We are still in the process of trying to assess in what form we can co-ordinate and co-operate our efforts. But we are willing to do so,” Mr Wilders says in an email to the Financial Times.
The Le Pen-Wilders partnership is not an isolated incident. Across the EU, parties hostile to Europe’s postwar project of integration are banding together for what many in Brussels fear could be a populist surge in May’s European parliament elections. Even ardent European federalists now concede that as much as 30 per cent of the new parliament will comprise eurosceptics who are capitalising on the economic misery and high levels of unemployment that are plaguing the continent.
“We all want to do whatever we can to turn the forthcoming European elections into a Europe-wide electoral landslide against Brussels,” says Mr Wilders.
Of all the benefits of co-operation, the greatest may be symbolic. Just by appearing side by side, politicians long portrayed as occupants of a loony – often racist – fringe hope to prove to voters that they are, in fact, part of the European mainstream.
“It shows that Marine Le Pen is not wandering alone in the desert,” says Ludovic de Danne, Ms Le Pen’s adviser for international affairs. “If I were a federalist, I would be very, very frightened.”
Eurosceptics come in different shapes and sizes, from those seeking an end to the EU to milder so-called eurocriticals who advocate reforms that would result in a looser, lighter bloc. Whether a disparate group of populists and nationalists can form an effective alliance across European borders to upend the status quo in Brussels remains to be seen. Some groups are still keen to keep their distance from others they consider unpalatable.
For example, Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence party, whose tart and charismatic opposition to the EU has made him an unlikely pan-European political celebrity, has so far resisted Ms Le Pen’s charm offensive. Although he expressed “admiration” for her efforts to remake the National Front, he complained that “subjects like anti-Semitism are so deeply embedded in that party that I think it’s difficult to change it”.
Still, Mr Farage has readily lent his star power to more moderate eurosceptic parties across the continent and has even tried to help spawn a new version of Ukip in Portugal. Other rising eurosceptics, such as Morten Messerschmidt, the leading MEP from the Danish People’s Party, have appeared at party conferences in Finland and Lithuania.
Beneath the radar, there have been efforts to collaborate through a little-known organisation called the European Alliance for Freedom, housed on a side street down the hill from the European parliament’s glass-and-steel Brussels’ headquarters.
Founded three years ago by Godfrey Bloom of Ukip, the EAF has become a venue where Ms Le Pen has mixed with mostly far-right politicians from the Austrian Freedom party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang and the Swedish Democrats, among others. (While the group opposes the EU, its principled stance has not prevented it from accepting more than €300,000 in EU funding.)
Among committed Europeans in Brussels, the eurosceptic mobilisation is dreaded as a sort of barbarian invasion. Many fear that it threatens not only European integration but also the free trade and open borders that have accompanied it.
José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, dedicated most of his annual state of the EU address last month to an urgent plea for pro-integrationists to stand up to the assault. Yet the populists notched up another victory at the weekend, when Ms Le Pen’s National Front won a by-election in the Cote d’Azur region. The triumph was underscored by a new poll showing the party leads the pack for European elections with 24 per cent support.
Even in Germany, where for historic reasons many believed an overtly anti-EU party could never gain traction, the anti-euro Alternatif für Deutschland came within a whisker of gaining seats in the Bundestag last month.
“Those who want to destroy the European Union are winning elections in Europe,” says Martin Schulz, the European parliament president.
Some cling to the hope that as the prospect of a eurosceptic electoral surge becomes more real it will trigger a stronger reaction from the mainstream parties. For the moment, though, an aide to a top MEP despaired at what he called euro-timids – politicians who are nominally pro-Europe but who “let the eurosceptic arguments float by without refuting them”.
If the eurosceptics make big gains next year, it would give them a new soapbox to promote their ideas and try to shift the European debate. But the parliament’s unique system could thwart any legislative ambitions. It has long operated on a broad consensus between the two largest parties: the centre-right European People’s party and the centre-left Socialists. A big intake of eurosceptics might make this arrangement messier but it would not overturn it, say diplomats.
The bigger effect of next year’s vote may be the repercussions beyond Brussels. If the eurosceptics do well, mainstream parties at home will come under pressure to toughen their own policies on Europe – a phenomenon that first played out in Finland and has since been repeated elsewhere.
As Mr Farage says: “What’s interesting about the European elections is it’s not so much the effect it has here that matters. It’s the effect it has on domestic politics.”
Ukip’s success has prodded David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, to harden his line on Europe by promising voters an EU referendum and demanding the repatriation of powers from Brussels.
In similar fashion, the Netherlands, long considered one of the EU’s most integrationist members, surprised observers in June when the government of Mark Rutte, the Liberal prime minister, unveiled a list of 54 policy areas that should be kept at national level. “Just as Cameron is being pushed by Ukip, Rutte is being pushed by Wilders,” Mr Messerschmidt says. “And that is what is happening across Europe.”
. . .
One outpost where euroscepticism is ascendant is Tampere, Finland, an industrial city that once sheltered Vladimir Lenin and now hosts a theme park featuring the angry birds from the video game developed by a Finnish software company.
But for those peculiarities, Tampere shares the traits of other European cities caught in an uncertain post-industrial transition. The brick textile mills that line its canals have been given over to other uses or shuttered altogether. Unemployment exceeds the national average, tax revenues are falling and the city government – after cutting €22m in spending this year – is considering further cuts.
“It would be nice to be a politician in a good economic time. It’s not so nice to make the difficult decisions,” says Anna-Kaisa Ikonen, Tampere’s mayor and a member of the pro-EU National Coalition party.
In 2011 national elections, the True Finns, which recently changed their name to The Finns, seized on popular fury against EU bailouts underwritten, in part, by Finland, to take 18.6 per cent of the vote here as they took 19 per cent nationwide. That result brought them within a percentage point of the victorious National Coalition and stunned the political establishment. Since then, The Finns have more than doubled their representation on the Tampere city council, gaining as much as 35 per cent of the vote in some nearby councils.
“We tend to get a lot of votes from men who used to work in the factories and used to vote for Social Democrats and feel let down,” says Sampo Terho, an MEP for The Finns.
When he was a student, Mr Terho – like most Finns – supported the country’s EU accession. Joining the bloc in 1995 and then adopting the euro was a way for Finland to cement its western ties after decades of uneasy existence beside the Soviet Union. Everyone was for it, he says.
The EU became a preoccupation only gradually, taking a back seat to more parochial issues such as laws requiring Finnish schoolchildren to study Swedish.
“The crisis really brought the problems of the EU to the wider public, to the common conversation,” says Mr Terho. Unlike Mr Farage, he does not advocate immediate withdrawal from the EU. But he favours a looser union where members can pick and choose what they like.
The party’s campaign for next year’s elections, which Mr Terho is overseeing, can be boiled down to a single word: “Enough!” – to bailouts, to integration and to sending more money and authority to Brussels.
. . .
Polling data suggest there could be fertile ground for that message across Europe. A Gallup survey in September found that 45 per cent of respondents believed things were headed in the wrong direction in the EU against only 26 per cent who were more optimistic. Majorities in 16 of the bloc’s 28 member states said powers should be reclaimed from Brussels.
“People have lost all faith that these guys know what they’re doing,” says Robert Manchin, managing director of Gallup Europe, noting that most Europeans now say the future will be worse than the present. “This is really unique in the world. Europe is a black hole in this sense.”
Even if eurosceptic parties succeed at drawing on this deep well of popular anger, the question remains whether they have the ability to form lasting bonds. History is not encouraging. In 2007, 23 far-right and nationalist MEPs formed a group known as Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty. By November, they had broken up after Alessandra Mussolini, an Italian member, insulted the Romanians.
“The nationalists have this problem: they’re nationalists,” says Joël Gombin, a French political scientist. “It’s always difficult for them to get along with nationalists from other countries.”
Mr Wilders and Ms Le Pen may be tested by the rise of virulent anti-EU parties they have tried to rebuff, such as Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn, which have a record of xenophobia and even violence.
“My fear is that at least in some countries those parties that will grow strong are parties that I would not like to see back on the European continent,” Mr Messerschmidt says.
Party politics: Finns sweat the gender gap
Perhaps it is not surprising that a party founded by four men in a sauna is having a hard time attracting women. But that is the plight of The Finns, the populist anti-EU party that has surged from the margins of Finland’s political landscape to the top of opinion polls.
While the party – formerly known as the True Finns – garnered about 25 per cent of male voters in the country’s last election in 2011, more than any other party, it only managed about 10 per cent of women.
“Obviously, we need women voters,” says Sampo Terho, the MEP who is overseeing The Finns’ campaign for next year’s European parliament elections. “That’s one of the biggest discussions we have.”
Its growth spurt has been fuelled by support from men who have lost factory jobs.
“Our image is very masculine,” says Mr Terho.
The hope is to rectify that by targeting issues of greater interest to women and fielding more female candidates.
But addressing the gender gap may not be so easy, says Catherine Fieschi, director of UK think-tank Counterpoint, who sees the plight of men as a defining feature of Finnish populism. “In the case of Finland, a lot of this has to do with a crisis of masculinity,” she says. “There’s a whole generation of men who feel relegated to bit-parts.”
The party could tone down the testosterone but in doing so, warned Ms Fieschi, “they would probably lose as many supporters as they gained”.
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